Do Not Attempt to Do Your Own Legal Documents
In this age of the internet, I see many people attempting to prepare their own legal documents. Typically, this involves accessing some do-it-yourself legal website which provides generic forms. These forms include legal documents such as the Durable Power of Attorney, the Designation of Health Care Surrogate, the Written Declaration or Living Will, Quit Claim Deed, Revocable Living Trust and Last Will and Testament.
In my forty years of experience as a Florida attorney, I have seen very few non-lawyers successfully create and properly execute any of the above legal documents. Much more common are situations where documents were created and/or executed improperly, thereby resulting in a legal can of worms which causes more problems and legal costs than would have occurred if a lawyer had done the documents properly in the beginning.
Deeds are a common example of where an attempt to save a few dollars in attorney’s fees results in what can often end up being major title defects. Properties are improperly transferred, thereby creating a defect in the title which needs to be corrected either while someone is alive or during a probate process after death. The defects can involve improper dates, names, lack of proper witnessing and/or notarizing, incorrect legal descriptions, etc. Lawyers make mistakes, too, particularly those who are not experienced in real estate.
The first thing that you have to understand is that each of our fifty states has its own unique set of laws. Therefore, attempting to use a generic form for any legal document that is meant to appl the entire country is asking for trouble.
Just recently (October of 2011), the Florida Legislature passed a new law regarding the Durable Power of Attorney. This law makes the document much more complicated and detailed than it used to be. I worked with several other law firms for many months to create a proper document to conform to the complex new law. It would shock me if such a document (our current format is approximately 26 pages) is available on the internet.
Likewise, there is specific language regarding the Federal HIPAA Act which must be included in all Florida Designation of Health Care Surrogates to make them “HIPAA compliant.” Such language does not exist on the generic Health Care Surrogate forms.
Regarding Revocable Living Trusts, attempts to create this document and then transfer property frequently results in a total mess which requires that a lawyer revoke all of the previous documents and start from scratch.
There are individuals and companies that advertise themselves as paralegals and claim they are not providing legal advice but only forms. In my opinion, it is virtually impossible to provide a legal form without providing legal advice. The Florida Bar is finalizing new requirements regarding paralegals so that they will be under strict supervision of attorneys in order to operate. Likewise, a Florida Notary cannot give legal advice, although many attempt to do so. Where a non-lawyer gives legal advice and prepares legal documents for a fee, a crime is being committed known as the “unauthorized practice of law.”
To become a lawyer, one must not only graduate an accredited law school, but also pass the State Bar Examination and then apply to be admitted. The applications for admission are scrutinized carefully, background checks are done, references are contacted and every effort is made to ensure that a person who is sworn in to practice law is qualified to do so. Nevertheless, there are lawyers who may be dishonest or not competent. There is a Bar grievance procedure whereby lawyers are disciplined for violation of ethical rules.
The bottom line is: there is no guarantee that hiring a lawyer will mean a good result. However, you certainly stand a much better chance than doing it on your own. Before you try to save a few dollars by printing a document from the internet, ask if you would do surgery on yourself.
When I personally require legal work, particularly if it is outside my areas of expertise, I always hire a lawyer to represent me. You have probably heard the saying: “a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.” Certainly, this must be even more accurate for a non-lawyer.
Please feel free to call me for a free personal or phone consultation regarding any issues pertaining to Wills, Trusts and Estates. I am also available for a free consultation regarding any issue pertaining to personal injury claims or car insurance coverage.
Serving Broward and Palm Beach Counties since 1973Be Smart!